Can Google win hearts and wallets again with this years model?
The Google Sales Pitch
What if you could have a performance vehicle for the price of a compact city car? Say, a Porsche 911 for the price of a Volkswagen Golf. I’m guessing you would probably go for that, I know I would. This is exactly what Google are trying to offer in their Nexus line. I’m probably straining the car metaphor a fair bit but there’s no doubt Google are aiming for the best Android small tablet experience at the tightest possible margin.
Other competitors have been content to put inferior technology into their small tablets to cut down on cost. Google, along with partner Asus, aren’t having any of that sort of compromise.
Mind you, performance cars sometimes have irritating quirks, like inconsistencies or quality issues that are the cost of aiming for outright performance with new technology. In Google’s case; aiming for the sky on a budget.
We saw this in last year’s Nexus 7. After a few months of solid use the IO performance began to degrade due to nand storage and controller issues. Many also pointed the finger at Nvidia’s Tegra 3 power plant as being inadequate to supply the raw compute to keep the tablet performing as it did when new. Although some of these issues have been addressed with updated software Google would need to up the ante this year to deliver something better.
To get a feel for whether or not Google will succeed in gaining your hard earned, lets start off with what we liked and what we didn’t like.
- Sharpest, brightest tablet display on the market
- Twice the power of last year’s model
- The latest version of Android – it’s a Nexus
- Stereo speakers sound better
- Improved battery life
- Handsome, slim, ergonomic design
- Notification light
- Awkward power & volume button placement
- Difficult to plug, upside down microUSB port
- Some app incompatibilities
- Speakers could be louder
- Some software glitches
- Large end bezels are a bit unsightly
Hardware and Design
Svelte. Understated. Functional. These are the qualities that come to mind when I consider the new Nexus 7. If you are using last years model you are definitely going to notice how much slimmer the new model feels. Google have slashed almost 2.0mm from the thickness of last years model taking it from 10.45mm down to 8.65mm and you can feel the difference in your hand and your pocket.
The new model is lighter too, down from 340g to 290g, meaning you can hold it for longer without hand or wrist soreness. It’s also narrower if you hold it in portrait, meaning you can get a better grip on it, especially if you have shorter fingers. On the downside it is longer. The bezels at each end are quite significant. It does mean you are less likely to bump on screen buttons but it also means that it looks a bit disproportionate.
The texture of the finish has a soft rubbery feel to it. Gone are the slightly more grippy, less attractive, tiny holes that made last years model look and feel like a driving glove. The texture fits somewhere between the casing of the CR48 Chromebook (slick) and the Nexus 10 (extra grippy).
Importantly for the Nexus 7, it’s grippier than metal or plastic. It feels well constructed and doesn’t exhibit any creaks, gaps or general signs of poor build quality. Personally, I feel as though it holds it’s own design wise and certainly makes most other seven inch tablets look like cheap alternatives.
This year’s Nexus 7 comes with extra touches that enhance it as a proposition. Many of these have been asked for by users of other Android devices, so it’s good to see Google seems to be listening. Extras over last years model include:
- Notification LED for alerts at a glance when the display is off, although it’s just a single colour
- Stereo speakers with virtual surround sound
- Dual-band Wi-Fi for less congestion on compatible networks
- Rear camera for those occasions when it may be needed
- Bluetooth Smart for streaming that requires less battery power
Those stereo speakers actually sound quite good, especially when placed on a table. I would have preferred it if they were louder. If you’re outdoors or in a noisy environment you’ll need to use headphones to hear well as the speakers just don’t produce enough volume. In a quiet room you’ll be well served.
While you’re in that quiet room you can enjoy the work of the clever people at Fraunhofer. The surround sound thing works quite nicely where it’s intended – that is, in movies and video that have surround sound encoding. I tried it out with the video demo where a young girl named Debbie flies through the air on a swing. I also tried it with a Transformers movie. I didn’t expect much but came away suitably impressed.
Additionally, you shouldn’t expect Galaxy S4 quality pictures from the rear camera but it is quite accurate in capturing colours and tones. At 5MP, it isn’t big on detail but I suspect that’s not really what a tablet camera is about. The camera interface is just as quick as the Nexus 4 (the fastest I’ve used) and includes most of the features including 1080p video capture with Time Lapse. On the still image side you get things like Photosphere, Panorama, Countdown Timer and all the different Scene and Exposure settings.
Rich colours, sharp text and genuine outdoor visibility make this JDI (Japan Display Inc.) screen the gold standard among smaller tablets. I’m not sure what you’ll notice first but for me it was the brightness. With close to 600 nits of brightness on tap you can use this tablet pretty much anywhere. Cranking the brightness up to full actually shocked me. As far as I can remember I’ve never seen a tablet display so bright.
Pleasingly, whether the brightness is cranked right up or at it’s lowest setting, I found text to be crisp and pleasing to the eye. I can read anything on the full web version of Ausdroid dot net, in portrait, even the smallest text, without squinting or zooming in. High five Google! One of the first things I did was download a bunch of high resolution pictures. Detail is pin sharp and rendering is fast and accurate as you zoom in and out of 20 MP+ images.
Colours are vivid and punchy but not oversaturated and you can view the display a long way off angle and still make out everything in good clarity and detail. 1080p video is gorgeous at it’s native resolution on the 1920×1200 display, with the extra 120 vertical pixels used for the dimmed Android on screen buttons. 720p video also looks great and Youtube HQ (480p) is completely watchable too.
Google Books and Magazines are completely legible and look great at default full screen settings. As many of these are scans you won’t want to go zooming right in as the quality isn’t there. But that’s a matter for the Google Play Store to address not the Nexus 7 display. I apologise for gushing but here it is deserved: This is the best small screen tablet display by a long way and with 323 ppi on tap it holds it’s own against larger tablets like the Nexus 10 (300ppi) too!
Powering those Pixels (Performance)
Under the hood is a customised version of Qualcomm’s S4 Pro system on chip. It has powerful Krait 300 cores like a Snapdragon 600 toting HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S 4 but a lower 1.5GHz clock speed like a Nexus 4. It also has a faster 2GB of 1600Mhz DDR3 RAM and nand storage chips on board for faster IO access and the still capable quad core Adreno 320 GPU on board for quick graphics rendering.
In short, it’s fast. After nearly 2 weeks of use I’ve not seen any slowdown. That may change over time as the storage fills up and bit rot sets in (assuming you believe bit rot is a thing) but for now it does what you tell it to do instantly. The only exception I can find is the Google Drive app which inexplicably takes about 1.5 seconds to launch if it’s not already running in the background. Multitasking is fast. Unlike the 2012 Nexus 7 there’s no bog down effect when switching between apps – hurray!
The Android version of “tyre kicking” or navigating home screens, the app and widget draw, menus and such is done with a minimum of fuss, as is consistent with my Nexus 4, but definitely smoother and quicker than last year’s 7 incher from Google. Websites load in good time on a capable data connection with scrolling and zooming now at an acceptable standard. Even the full version of The Verge website can be navigated acceptably using Chrome – yes, the Chrome browser!
Gaming is also better with the Adreno 320 providing better frame rates in games and those Krait 300 cores decreasing load times. This coupled with the new adoption in Android 4.3 of OpenGL ES 3.0 for better graphics rendering means your games can be seen in greater detail with better fluidity. The one sore point for me is that some games have not been updated for this new Nexus 7. In my case it’s only one game but unfortunately it’s my favourite: Need For Speed Most Wanted.
The good news is that OpenGL ES 3.0 will be supported by more and more games as time goes by. From what we’ve heard, Asphalt 8 (due out in a few days) should make use of this new framework for example.
Version 4.3, the latest and greatest from the Android Team is onboard the new Nexus 7 and you wouldn’t expect anything less. Bear in mind that (at the time of writing) there are two Android updates available for users of the Nexus 7, and first time users should be prepared to install these fairly early in the process to make the most of their device.
In addition to the “photo realistic” accelerated 3D graphics upgrade to OpenGL ES 3.0 (an Industry Standard first on Android among mobile platforms) this new dog brings a few other new tricks. Among them FSTrim, which is a little bit like defragmentation of a Hard Disk. Although, it’s quite different in that Trim for eMMC storage doesn’t repack the files in a more efficient manner but rather collects the garbage files when your device is idle and has at least 70% battery.
In a smartphone and tablet the unnecessary garbage is then wiped away so the storage controller doesn’t need to waste time and CPU cycles addressing it. It’s a bit like wiping clean some work on a blackboard that you’re finished using so your eyes don’t have to search as much for what you’re looking for. This means that over time your Nexus 7’s storage IO performance shouldn’t degrade.
Another software upgrade specifically for tablets is Restricted Profiles. The new Nexus 7 and older supported tablets will allow you to set up a user account with restricted privileges so that you can share your tablet with someone else, a child for example, and be able to control what apps and features that other user has access to. Faster user switching is also available in Android 4.3 on your new Nexus 7.
One more thing of note is background Wi-Fi location. This means your tablet can gather location information even if your Wi-Fi is switched off. This allows for more efficient use, leading to better battery life.
With my current setup I’m getting about 3 days of use with about 8 hours of screen on time (I only use the tablet with the display on for 2 or 3 hours per day) which is pretty decent. However, I don’t power the tablet off when I’m not using it but I have gone into the Wi-Fi settings and turned off “Network notification”, set “Keep Wi-Fi on during sleep” to Never, turned on “Scanning always available” and kept “Wi-Fi optimisation” turned on. Brightness generally stays on Auto although I sometimes increase it a little as the default is occasionally too low.
I have 2 GMail accounts installed and the usual spattering of social networks installed which are generally set to default. While the display is off the tablet uses almost zero battery. When left overnight it will only use 1 or 2 percent battery – awesome, no wakelocks! Games tend to use nearly 15% battery per hour whereas YouTube tends to use closer to 10% per hour. Email, Browsing, Messaging and Social networks tend to use a little less than YouTube.
I reckon you could probably squeeze close to 12 hours of continual use out of the tablet if you dialed the brightness right down and didn’t do any gaming. Straight out out of the box I could see Google’s claim of 9 hours of video or 10 hours of browsing being about right.
There are a few things of note to consider if you are going to purchase this tablet:
- Turning the tablet on or adjusting the volume while the tablet it sitting on a flat surface is difficult and will probably frustrate you if you have to do it often. It really needs to be lifted a little for that.
- It’s early days for Android 4.3 and the new Nexus 7. The price you sometimes pay for the latest is that some apps may not be updated yet. Of the 60 apps I generally install on all of my devices only one is not available. Still, like me, it could be one of your favourites.
- Although you can purchase a 16GB or 32GB 2013 Nexus 7 from “grey importers” it probably won’t be officially available in Australia for a couple of weeks. Even then, the LTE (4G) version won’t be available for some unspecified time after that, though information from PLE is that the LTE version may well be available at launch. Hard to know what’s happening.
- I have had one unexpected reboot and one app unexpectedly close seemingly without reason – really only a minor glitch on a new product but I feel it’s worth mentioning.
Nexus 7 (2013)
Quad Core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU @ 1.5GHz
Quad Core Adreno 320 GPU @ 400MHz
7.02 inch 1920×1200 IPS HD display (323 ppi)
16GB or 32GB internal storage
2GB DDR3L-1600 RAM
Dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4Ghz/5Ghz) 802.11 a/b/g/n, NFC & Bluetooth 4.0
5MP rear facing, autofocus camera & 1.2MP front facing, fixed focus camera
3950 mAh Battery with wireless charging built-in (Qi compatible)
Stereo speakers with surround sound, powered by Fraunhofer
- SlimPort™ enabled microUSB
Did Google achieve the goal of producing a performance tabet on a budget? You bet they did! No-one can honestly use this year’s nexus 7 and call it a corner cutter. It has what I would call the best performance of any small Android tablet on the market. It also has the best display in that same category and possibly ANY tablet category. It is thin, light and comfortable in hand but still looks mature and classy.
Should you buy one? If you’re after a small Android tablet that beats the other’s hands down I say a resounding Yes! The only other smallish Android tablet you might consider is a bigger one. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 offers stylus related features, decent performance and a Samsung ecosystem of accessories and content deals no other Android Manufacturer can match. But those things aside the new Nexus 7 beats the pants off it.
Will you be buying one?
Price and Availabilty
We expect to see the new Nexus 7 hit the Play Store in the next couple of weeks with a price somewhere in the realm of $269-$299 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model plus another $50 for the 32GB model. Until then, you can check out some of the other methods of getting your hands on one a bit earlier from MobiCity, PLE – pre-order now with availability late August, Kogan or B&H PhotoVideo.